From Gilbert and Sullivan to Mad magazine’s mad Mort Drucker, not to mention the Marx Brothers, no end of wiseacres have had their fun with Il Trovatore. Big joke! The plot hinges on a mother throwing the wrong child—her own—into a bonfire.

But that’s backstory, and the consequences that play out in the stage action add up to high-Romantic melodrama of a hypnotic order. In this corner, meet the guerilla-poet Manrico, supposed son of the wild gypsy Azucena. And in that corner, the high-born Count di Luna. Antagonists in war and rivals in love, the mortal enemies are also long-lost brothers, a secret one of them learns seconds after he has had the other’s head struck off. Then the curtain falls like the blade of an ax.

A bargain struck. Leonora (Barbara Frittoli) offers herself to the love-crazed Count di Luna (Leo Nucci) in exchange for the life of her troubadour.

Captured during its premiere run at the Teatro alla Scala in 2000, the Argentinean designer-director Hugo de Ana’s production of Il Trovatore unfolds in atmospherically somber and monumental fashion. From the midnight opening in the guardroom of the count’s palace to the finale in his prison, the moon might be in perpetual eclipse. Warriors in full armor push through the shadows as if perfecting their tai chi. The gloomy optics suit the story line, but the music paints personal obsessions in a thousand colors, and Riccardo Muti sets them aflame in all their blazing and flickering brilliance. The vertiginous action sequences take the breath away. The rare lyrical interludes stop time.

As the count’s grizzled retainer Ferrando, Giorgio Giuseppini gets the evening off to a riveting start with his incisive account of what happened a generation ago. Then the Pre-Raphaelite beauty Barbara Frittoli takes the stage as Leonora, the queen’s lady-in-waiting, ever ready to trade thwarted love for instant death by whatever means necessary. Frittoli flows through poses like a silent-screen goddess, even as her song marries lyric melancholy with go-for-broke determination.

Pre-Raphaelite beauties: Leonora at the threshold of a convent she will never enter, surrounded by despondent ladies of the court.

Next up is the veteran Leo Nucci as Count di Luna, and if it’s late in the day for him in this most glamorous of Verdi’s baritone parts, let’s just take the will for the deed. Within moments, he’s at daggers drawn with Manrico in the person of the stouthearted Salvatore Licitra (see last week’s Opera Pick, Un Ballo In Maschera), flinging himself into tragedy, romance, and adventure as if there were no tomorrow.

Finally, a scene change introduces Violeta Urmana, whose spine-tingling delivery fires up Azucena’s bizarre schizophrenic vendetta to white heat.

Il Trovatore is available for streaming on

Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii